What is Science: Is Science about Reductionism or Holism?

By: Bruce
January 6, 2011

In my last post I discussed Scientific Realism vs. Positivism. The conclusion I drew was that, while both are useful points of view, Scientific Realism is the one you want if your desire is to comprehend reality. In this post, I’m going to discuss Deutsch’s arguments surrounding Reductionism and Holism, two points of view that Deutsch argues are also a hindrance to Scientific Realism.

Reductionism

Deutsch describes Reductionism as the belief that:

…science allegedly explains things reductively – by analysing them into components. For example, the resistance of a wall to being penetrated or knocked down is explained by regarding the wall as a vast aggregation of interacting molecules. The properties of those molecules are themselves explained in terms of their constituent atoms, and the interactions of these atoms with one another, and so on down to the smallest particles and most basic forces. Reductionists think that all scientific explanations, and perhaps all sufficiently deep explanations of any kind, take this form. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 19)

The end result of this point of view is a hierarchy of theories similar to this picture I’m taking from the Eternal Universe. (Love that site.)

Reductionists Purity of Science

Deutsch is not denying that you can reduce explanations into a hierarchy like this. That is certainly true. What he is denying is that the base of the hierarchy is somehow more fundamental or more important than another parts of the hierarchy.

Deutsch points out that the Reductionist framework is more “a matter of principle only.”

No one expects actually to deduce many principles of biology, psychology or politics from those of physics. The reason why higher-level subjects can be studied at all is that under special circumstances the stupendously complex behavior of vast numbers of particles resolves itself into a measure of simplicity and comprehensibility. This is called emergence: high-level simplicity ‘emerges’ from low-level complexity. High-level phenomena about which there are comprehensible facts that are not simply deducible from lower-level theories are called emergent phenomena. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 20-21)

Deutsch takes the example above of the strength of a wall as an example of emergence.

For example, a wall might be strong because its builders feared that their enemies might try to force their way through it. This is a high-level explanation of the wall’s strength, not deducible from (though not incompatible with) the low-level explanation… The purpose of high-level sciences is to enable us to understand emergent phenomena…” (The Fabric of Reality, p. 21) [1]

So Deutsch’s objection to Reductionism isn’t that things can’t be reduced – they can – but rather that a science of particle physics is not necessarily more fundamental to understanding reality than (according to Deutsch) emergent theories such as life, thought, and computation. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 21) Those phenomena are not hopeless derivative of particle physics after all, they are fundamental parts of a potential “Theory of Everything” by which reality is to be understood. [2]

Holism

All of this would seem to indicate that the views of Holism – the idea that all is one and you can’t break the world into parts – might be true instead of Reductionism.

It is not uncommon for scientists that I’ve read to claim that the West believed in Reductionism and the East in Holism. This point of view espouses that the West went about breaking things down into categories and eventually discovered Atomism which in turn led to the West’s powerful scientific knowledge. Meanwhile, the poor East was seeking knowledge through meditation and Holism and thus failed to develop the scientific method.

However, so goes this viewpoint, it turns out that Holism was true after all. The East wasn’t wrong, they were just premature. Science is now realizing that you can’t understand things one part at a time because you must understand them as a whole. Zen Buddhism was therefore supposedly right after all.

Just as it’s true that we can reduce scientific theories to lower level theories, it’s also true that the very act of categorizing things and reducing them fails to fully grasp the whole. Douglas Hofstadter (author of the Pulitzer prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) is a student of Zen Buddhism (to a degree) and sees real value to Holism. He attempts to define the goal of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism as transcending what he calls “dualism” which he defines similarly to what we are calling Reductionism. [3]

Now what is dualism? Dualism is the conceptual division of the world into categories. …breaking… the world into categories takes place far below the upper strata of thought… In other words, human perception is by nature a dualistic phenomenon – which makes the quest for enlightenment an uphill struggle, to say the least. (Gödel, Escher, Bach, p. 251)

Just as reductionism has truth to it, but isn’t the truth, the same could be said of Holism as well. Deutsch argues that the problem with Holism is that it’s the reverse – but effectively worse – error of Reductionism. It favors emergent explanations over reducible explanations. Deutsch responds, “Where whole sciences are reducible to lower-level sciences, it is just as incumbent upon us as scientists to find those reductions as it is to discover any other knowledge.” (The Fabric of Reality, p. 21)

Deepest Theories

If neither Reductionism nor Holism is fully correct, does this imply that all scientific explanations are created equal? Deutsch, argues no. His point of view is that there are privileged scientific theories, so to speak.

The laws of biology, say, are high-level, emergent consequences of the laws of physics. But logically, some of the laws of physics are then ‘emergent’ consequences of the laws of biology. It could even be that, between them, the laws governing biological and other emergent phenomena would entirely determine the laws of fundamental physics. … The truly privileged theories are not the ones referring to any particular scale of size or complexity… but the ones that contain the deepest explanations. …What makes a theory more fundamental, and less derivative, is not its closeness to the supposed predictive base of physics, but its closeness to our deepest explanatory theories. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 28)

I believe that Deutsch is onto something here. In particular, I agree with him that the emergent explanations of thought, life, and computation are fundamental to understanding the nature of reality. [4]

Questions

  • Using Deutsch’s criteria of what makes the deepest theory, what are our deepest theories?
  • How many of you have practiced meditation? Have you ever reached a state where you lost your sense of self?
  • Using the example of an explanation for why a wall is strong, could the following explanation be reduced to an algorithm?: “Because its builders feared that their enemies might try to force their way through it.”
  • This post hinted at the idea that scientific progress might be indirectly related to religious beliefs. Give evidence or against such a position.

Notes

[1] In a past post, I asked the question of how does one explain spirits and Agellius (A Catholic Blogger) responded that the explanation of spirits is that they are disembodied minds, and therefore he did have an explanation of spirits without having to come up with a reducible explanation of, say, how spirits can store memories. Agellius was confusing levels of explanation. My question was limited to reducibility so Agellius was only restating what I had already said – that he had no reducible explanation for how spirits can be intelligent and therefore the whole phenomena was not further explainable and comprehensible from within his worldview. Agellius, as a Catholic, does not expect there to be an explanation as to what spirits are beyond an emergent definition of what they are at an abstract level.

I simply do not have enough information to draw any definitive conclusions yet on whether or not spirits and minds should have reducible computable explanations. And certainly a lot of Mormons hold a similar view about Intelligences being non-reducible minds. So this is not a Mormon vs. Catholic debate in my opinion and I accept that I hold a (currently) minority view on this subject. The main difference I see between the Catholic and Mormon view is actually that Mormons accept all such explanations – including both the majority view and my minority view — as only speculative while Catholics seem to have a specific view that is required – namely that there will be no reducible explanation of spirits possible.

Personally, I find this non-reducible point of view questionable because brains have reducible explanations – namely the activity of brain cells. So the one objective example of minds that we know of does have a reducible explanation. Therefore I find it curious if we found that spirits lack reducibility. If they did, why would brains need reducibility? This would imply that brains could have been non-reducible structures, just like spirits, but God decided to make brains reducible even though it drastically misleads us about the true nature of reality. I prefer that more straightforward explanation that brains teach us something universal about minds: that all minds are complex emergent phenomena that are interactions of simpler entities. So for the moment, that is my current working hypothesis on minds.

[2] Theory of Everything. I am here using the term as Deutsch uses it rather than in the more usual way of referring to some ‘fundamental’ physics theory that is yet to be found that explains quantum gravity. Deutsch gives the following explanation:

A reductionist thinks that science is about analysing things into components. An instrumentalist thinks that it is about predicting things. To either of them, the existence of high-level sciences is merely a matter of convenience. Complexity prevents us from using fundamental physics to make high-level predictions, so instead we guess what those productions would be if we could make them – emergence gives us a chance of doing that successfully – and supposedly that is what the higher-level sciences are about. Thus to reductionists and instrumentalists, who disregard both the real structure and the real purpose of scientific knowledge, the base of the predictive hierarchy of physics is by definition the ‘theory of everything’. [Used in the conventional sense.] But to everyone else scientific knowledge consists of explanations, and the structure of scientific explanation does not reflect the reductionists hierarchy. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 22)

[3] Dualism. Hofstadter uses the word ‘dualism’ differently than the traditional Christian point of view which generally refers to

…a philosophical viewpoint espoused by Rene Descartes, and it asserts that there are two separate kinds of substance: ‘mind-stuff’ and ordinary matter. Whether, or how, one of these kinds of substance might or might not be able to affect the other is an additional question. The point is that the mind-stuff is not supposed to be composed of matter, and is able to exist independently of it. (Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind, p. 21).

The traditional Cartesian variety of dualism – where there is no connection between matter and mind — is almost certainly wrong. But as it turns out, there is a sense in which dualism is true to a degree. Materialist John Searle attempted to argue against dualism and, in my opinion, accidently points out that it follows inevitably from computational theory. See John Searle’s article “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (I found it in The Mind’s I, p. 372) for further discussion. I will address this further in future posts.

[4] I confess, I was a Computer Science major. No wonder I’m drawn to the point of view that computational theory is fundamental to reality.

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27 Responses to What is Science: Is Science about Reductionism or Holism?

  1. FireTag on January 6, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    Deutsch is correct in reminding physicists that it isn’t a hierarchy. I just get tired when the post-modernists start acting like physics is just applied sociology. :D

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  2. FireTag on January 7, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    “Personally, I find this non-reducible point of view questionable because brains have reducible explanations – namely the activity of brain cells. So the one objective example of minds that we know of does have a reducible explanation. Therefore I find it curious if we found that spirits lack reducibility. If they did, why would brains need reducibility? This would imply that brains could have been non-reducible structures, just like spirits, but God decided to make brains reducible even though it drastically misleads us about the true nature of reality. I prefer that more straightforward explanation that brains teach us something universal about minds: that all minds are complex emergent phenomena that are interactions of simpler entities. So for the moment, that is my current working hypothesis on minds.”

    I’m glad I went back and read your footnote. The question of finding a physical substrate for the spirit that can precede and survive the organization of a physical body is of great interest in the inseparability of physical and spiritual, preexistence, and resurrection as defined in Mormon theology — at least to me.

    Deutsch’s defense of parallel universes as a real, fundamental, deep explanation of how physical reality works seems to provide a way forward. Seeing our various parallel copies as “neurons” creates a brain-analog for our spirits’ consciousness to inhabit that has more complexity than an individual mind. That structure recurs throughout spacetime (since, as Deutsch notes, other times are just special cases of other parallel universes) and so has been around essentially forever. It survives the loss of a single copy, and its evolution is governed by what ALL the copies experience. All the luck of circumstances in life comes out in the wash, and reveals the true character of the soul.

    The trick, of course, ( :D ), is to devise a plausible explanation of how the copies interact with each other when information can’t be transferred among them through spacetime at faster than light speed.

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  3. Bruce on January 8, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    FireTag,

    I find your theories on this point facinating possiblities. (I was already familiar with your hypothesis due to past posts).

    I personally do not (at this time anyhow) subscribe to this point of view.

    However, I do subscribe to a sort of “super person” point of view that has some things in common with what you are suggesting. There might even be a way to eventually fit your view into mine or vice versa, converging them, though I’m not clear how that is possible as of yet.

    Also, I can’t really say I have a “point of view” yet. I’m exploring.

    I personally believe development of theories, even personal theories like this, are what we need in life.

    Your ideas might turn out to be “poppy @#!*% ” (as might mine or anyone elses) but yours are what I call “the right sort of poppy @#!*% .” You are using reason to come up with an explanation and you are refusing to just ignore what we know. And your ideas develop new possible directions for research. They might even be ‘falsifyable’ some day.

    Here are a few ideas for you:
    1. Quantum computers are (will be) a sharing of data across the multiverse. (I’m personally undecided on the subject of the multiverse.)
    2. Furthermore, Deutsch points out that given a multiverse view of reality, we can actually physically describe information as convergence across worlds.
    3. The Omega point (aka the God-collective) is the final convergence of all worlds and therefore all information.

    These three points, I think, might solve your desire to ‘devise a plausible explanation of how the copis interact with eac other when informtion can’t be transferred among them through space time faster than the speed of light.’

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  4. FireTag on January 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    Deutsch does talk about the encoding of information across the multiverse, and I like the idea. But that picture is a little broad-scale to show you and me.

    The multi-worlds interpretation of QM can occur in addition to the recurrence of worlds in an infinite universe. The two “levels”, as Tegmark refers to them, simply map the same set of possibilities differently and so emphasize different features.

    So, I do think our ideas are compatible, but I’m looking for a mapping that explains the spirits of man, not just the super-mind of God.

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  5. Bruce on January 8, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    I was just trying to help you with your idea. I wasn’t articulating mine.

    What I had in mind (for your idea) was that the omega point might be thought of as being made up of the convergence of all life across the quantum multiverse. Perhaps “me” and all my “copies” are all there in superposition, but they are starting to converge (as knowledge converges) and do so more and more with time.

    I have no idea if this works or not.

    Also within an omega point cosmology, there is not second level of multiverse becuase the universe is not infinite.

    I have the omega point on my mind because I’m reading Tipler’s book right now. He does not believe in inflation, interestingly enough. I’m too physic dumb to assess his argument. But he claims the evidence for inflation is actually also evidence for a Zel’dovich’s 1972 theory of scale invariant density fluctuation. Since (so he argues) this predates inflation by a decade, we should not understand the evidence generally touted as supporting inflation as suggesting inflation is correct. Therefore, there is no evidence for inflation yet, he claims.

    He goes on to point out that inflation assumes the existence of a force field that has never been seen in a labratory.

    I haven’t the expertise to assess his claims, I’m afraid. But obviously if he was right then the other level of multiverse due to an infinite universe doesn’t exist.

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  6. Bruce on January 8, 2011 at 8:42 PM

    Oh, and he also claims we’ve already found a quantum gravity theory:

    The quantization of Einstein’s gravity theory was actually acheived in the 1960s by two American Nobel Prize winning physicist, Feynman and Weinberg, who remarkably, did not realize they had solved the problem of quantum gravity. (Most phyisicist don’t realize this even today.) They were expecting to obtain a quantum theory of gravity that had derivatives no higher than second order. Unfortunately, general relativity, the principle that laws of physics are observer-independent, will not be completely consistent with the linear superposition principle unless derivaties of an arbitrary higher order are present. Fenyman and Winberg discovered this and then wrote down the essentially unique quantum theory of gravity that followed from gravity being spacetime curvature consistent with the linear superposition principle. But they recoiled in horror from the theory they had discovered… All previous theories of physics have been built on equations called partial differential equations, which basically equate derivatives of various physical quantities. … there were only a finite number of terms. … What Fenyman and Weinberg really discovered was another and more fundamental limitation on human knowledge: not only can we not, even in principle, determine exactly the position and momentum of a particle, but we cannot even determine or write down, even in principle, the ultimate equations the particle will follow!

    It’s all Greek (or Geek?) to me.

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  7. [...] Don’t miss my latest science post over at Wheat and Tares. This one is called “What is Science: Is Science about Reductionism or Holism?” [...]

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  8. FireTag on January 9, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    Bruce:

    I appreciate the input. I just react to the theories off of the top of my head. I really do want to work toward a self-consistent cosmology and theology as a personal pillar of faith so that the part of my brain where my testimony resides is not at war with the part of my brain in which my analytical urge arises. So I tend to bounce back ideas pretty quickly in the form of problems to be overcome. Sorry if that comes across as dismissive, because I may come back to the very idea I seem to dismiss leter if something else doesn’t pan out.

    There are a number of criticisms of Tipler’s cosmology out there — even by Deutsch himself. Perhaps the fiurst to overcome is that it requires a “closed” cosmology in which spacetime is shaped in a higher-dimensional analogy of a globe. The experimental evidence since Tipler wrote is increasingly coming in that the universe is “open”. The higher dimensional shape is said to be an analogy to an infinite potato chip, but infinite potato ships don;t really look much like a potato chip, as you can see here:

    http://theiff.org/oexhibits/oe1.html

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  9. Bruce on January 9, 2011 at 8:15 PM

    I’d be interested in Deutsch’s current thoughts on the subject, including his criticisms of Tipler. Do you just mean his criticisms in The Fabric of Reality, or do you have a link to something else? (A google search failed to find anything.)

    I’m afraid both the theory and much of the criticism goes over my head. I do recall, however, that his “point” structure must require a fairly equal collapse phase, so I can see how a potato chip must be seriously problematic for the theory.

    Being ‘open’ seems less problematic if you buy into the idea that life can in fact cause a collapse and will choose to do so for their own survival. (Tipler goes on about this quite a bit since the universe is accelerating in it’s expansion.)

    The omega ponit theory is an interesting theory. I’d like to see a “Mormon version” of it. I like the fact that Tipler tries to take both theology and science seriously. He fails in many regards, but I love that he is honestly trying to make sense of the things most important in life. I suspect he’s on to some interesting new directions even if his current theories are all wrong.

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  10. Bishop Rick on January 9, 2011 at 9:14 PM

    FT, you and I have had discussions about Man being a type of molecule of a much larger being (God). With this in mind, think of our spirits as memories that survive inside the supreme brain, beyond the death of the original molecule. Wouldn’t new molecules have access to those memories and couldn’t it be cloned (reprogrammed) from those memories?

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  11. FireTag on January 9, 2011 at 10:28 PM

    Bruce:

    I was referring to the criticisms in Fabric of Reality.

    Bishop Rick:

    I do think along the lines you suggested almost exactly. I just think that within this mind of God, the remembering goes on at all scales and among multiple templates. For example, I think our minds and physical lives are also memories of our own spirits, the spirit of the earth remembers the spirits of its creatures throughout history, and there are higher levels or organization within God we don’t begin to comprehend.

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  12. Bishop Rick on January 9, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    Where does Jesus fit into this?
    And have you seen Avatar?

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  13. Mark D. on January 9, 2011 at 11:15 PM

    High-level phenomena about which there are comprehensible facts that are not simply deducible from lower-level theories are called emergent phenomena.

    The weaknesses of run of the mill naturalist world views notwithstanding, from a logical point of view it is difficult for me to conceive of non-reductive emergentism as anything other than a intellectual defect, on the order of believing in witchcraft or alchemy?

    The right combination of materials suffuses it with magical properties that are completely unpredictable from the nature of the materials and the manner in which they are arranged? The nature of the materials is a serious question. The nature and origin of the manner in which they are arranged is a serious question. The nature of the interactions of the various components is a serious question.

    But the idea that there are random properties of compositions out there that cannot be explained through reductive analysis gives even witches and alchemists a bad name. The plot of every show on the occult revolves around some sort of comprehensive theory of magic, does it not? Every witch is a wanna be reductionist. You can’t even pretend to have a rational thought about anything in the real world without it. Radical emergentism is the abandonment of reason in favor of mystery and superstition.

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  14. nathan000000 on January 10, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    Bruce: I confess, I was a Computer Science major. No wonder I’m drawn to the point of view that computational theory is fundamental to reality.

    So is your CS major the deeper reality that caused you to be drawn to computational theory, or are you reducing your explanations backwards? :-)

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  15. Bruce on January 10, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    “So is your CS major the deeper reality that caused you to be drawn to computational theory, or are you reducing your explanations backwards?”

    I started reading books about whether or not the mind was computational and went “hey, this all looks familiar.”

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  16. Bruce on January 10, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    “Radical emergentism is the abandonment of reason in favor of mystery and superstition.”

    But what about just acknowledging that most laws and sciences we find and use are in fact emergent?

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  17. Bruce on January 10, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    @#11

    FireTag,

    There is no doubt that Tipler goes way beyond science in his attempts to explain all of Catholicism. :) But I give him credit for at least making all his ‘pet theories’ testable. Presumably they are not only falsifiable, but indeed will be falsified. But if my some chance they do do DNA testing on the Shroud and they find out there is XX male DNA, I’m going to have to seriously rethink my worldview in favor of his. :P

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  18. FireTag on January 10, 2011 at 11:05 PM

    Mark D.:

    Maybe I’m misreading you, but you almost seem to be equating “emergent” with “unconnected”. Yes, you can always (we think) make up an explanation — often several of them — for the causes of complex events after the fact. But we can hardly assume that our knowledge of the physical laws is so solid that we can infer in advance of the conditions that produce the phenomena what the phenomena will inevitably be. Even in mathematics, there are always mathematical truths that can not be derived from any set of axioms we have, so that mathematics itself appears incomplete.

    It’s a lot easier to trace the property of “wetness” back to the electrical forces of hydrogen and oxyfen atoms than to start with a hydrogen atom and figure out that there will be a property of wetness in which one might be interested.

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  19. Bishop Rick on January 11, 2011 at 12:18 AM

    If there is an Adamic language, I contend that it’s math.

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  20. Bruce on January 11, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    Bishop Rick,

    8^4*4/6(4#6)*5

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  21. Bishop Rick on January 12, 2011 at 2:09 AM

    I didn’t say everyone could speak it.

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  22. nathan000000 on January 12, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    Mark D.: The plot of every show on the occult revolves around some sort of comprehensive theory of magic, does it not? Every witch is a wanna be reductionist.

    I think that’s actually a modern development. If you look at these kinds of stories from longer ago, it looks less like the scientific method. I think the trend you describe is actually the influence of scientific naturalism on our modern story telling.

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  23. Bruce on January 12, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    Ever read The Conjure Wife? Sorry for the tangent, but comment #22 suddenly made me think of it. Leiber’s whole “theory of magic” was quite interesting.

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  24. MoJim on January 13, 2011 at 9:02 AM

    Stealing xkcd comics without attribution? Not cool.

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  25. greenfrog on January 13, 2011 at 10:32 AM

    A thought: the dualism that Zen practice transcends is neither the mind/body dualism of Descartes (as you note in [3]) nor that of parts vs. whole (which I understand you to assert), but rather that of subject and object.

    Subject/object transcendence is as incomprehensible from a dualistic perspective as three dimensions are from a two-dimensional perspective.

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  26. Algorithmic Reducibility | Wheat and Tares on January 13, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    [...] In my last post, I discussed the point of view known as ‘reductionism’ and the problems with that point of view. In summary, reductionism is the false belief that sciences that work with the smallest units of nature – atoms and below – are somehow more fundamental explanations of reality than emergent ones, such as thought or computation. [...]

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  27. Mark D. on January 14, 2011 at 11:06 PM

    But what about just acknowledging that most laws and sciences we find and use are in fact emergent?

    None of them are radically emergent. Radical emergence has never been demonstrated. For example, if you start with a deterministic world and all the sudden libertarian free will shows up one day (where LFW is incompatible with determinism, by definition), that would be an example of radical emergence.

    Another example would be if you took a pre-biotic soup and mixed and stirred and all the sudden had some sort of organism that could not be simulated according to pre-existing quantum mechanical laws.

    Radical emergence is essentially the theory that fundamental laws of physics pop out of nowhere, and that is ridiculous.

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